The USNS Wheeling was a Watertown class of missile range instrumentation ships, a duty she undertook beginning in 1963 under the tutelage of the US NAVY. However, she started life in April 1945 as a Victory ship, launched by the Oregon Shipbuilding Corp. Between 1945 and 1957 she was to operate for the US Maritime Commission under a number of civilian contractors, starting with the Olympic Steamship Line and ending with Pope & Talbot. The following five years she spent berthed on James River to be retrofitted as a missile tracking ship in 1962 and named Wheeling. By 1981 she was all but retired and used as a target ship for testing AGM/RGM-84 Harpoon missiles. After surviving two shots during a July 1981 naval exercise she is known to have been sunk sometime after, struck from the Navy registry in 1990.
Asbestos could have been found in nearly all areas of the ship. Used for heat and water shielding, the dust formed by this dangerous mineral could have affected virtually all members of the crew. However, those working the engine rooms, damage control room, pump room, and propulsion room, as well as the many radar technicians on board were most under threat of toxic exposure.